Note: This story has been corrected to show that Russell Bearden initially met with William Jones about a complaint from March of 2015 on May 11, 2015.
Five women, including four current or former county employees, have filed sexual harassment complaints against Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones. Tuesday night, without any discussion, the Anderson County Commission unanimously voted to censure Jones and ask that he resign. As of the time this report was filed, he had not stepped down from his position nor had he removed his name from the May 1st Republican primary ballot. Thursday at noon was the deadline to do so.
Jones, in an email sent to commissioners and other officials Tuesday afternoon, wrote “While some minor offensive joking may have taken place, I categorically deny any actions which would create a hostile work environment.
I suspect these false allegations are politically motivated with convenient timing. I am in the process of engaging attorneys to respond and appropriately deal with these claims. I have not been interviewed or asked a single thing about any of these matters and look forward to setting the record straight in the proper forum.” The email was read out loud during the Commission meeting and entered into the minutes.
The complaints, which Commission Chairman Tim Isbel said during Tuesday’s meeting show a “pattern of conduct that is beyond any reasonable interpretation of ethical and moral decency for anyone supervising employees” appear to date back to at least 2015, according to documents obtained by WYSH.
During Tuesday’s meeting, HR Director Kim Jeffers-Whitaker detailed some of the allegations made against Jones, saying “alleged instances of unprofessional comments including: degrading nicknames; and requests to dress inappropriately to ‘please him’; unlawful interview questions; unwelcome sexual advances; sexually explicit messages; solicitation of sex; and unwanted touching that are among the acts reported creating a hostile work environment for the Anderson County government employees.”
One accuser, who started as an unpaid intern and became a part-time employee, in a sworn statement complete with screenshots of alleged Snapchat exchanges with Jones, accuses him of sending her a message in April of 2016 that read “A single kind word or a photo of your [breasts] can make somebody’s day.” She further stated that “because he was my immediate supervisor and he made it known that if I did not send him a copy of my breast, he would not hire me full-time,” and she said that she had sent him a picture of her breast, what she called “an error in judgment.”
She also showed HR personnel a screenshot of a message allegedly sent by Jones that read “Last thing I sent you was grabbing the back of your head and thrusting my **** in your throat. Since you don’t gag does that mean I can *** in the back of you (sic) mouth?”
Some of the women gave sworn statements that Jones liked his employees to call him “daddy” and would make statements like “that’s what Daddy likes,” and assigning nicknames to employees behind their backs, including one woman he called “Daddy’s b***h” and another he referred to as “Daddy’s prissy b***h.”
On one occasion, an accuser says she happened to mention to Jones that a young woman she knew was very excited about an upcoming internship in the office and was looking forward to purchasing “professional-looking” clothes, to which Jones allegedly remarked, “The shorter the skirt and the tighter the clothes and basically, the more her…her [breasts] hang out, the better because that’s what Daddy likes.”
Workers described an atmosphere around the office filled with uncertainty, saying that employees were so unsure of their standings in the office, that they would keep empty file boxes under their desks just in case they got fired and had to remove their belongings. Others said that when employees did not acquiesce to Jones’ alleged behavior, they would be transferred to the Oak Ridge office. At least one accuser called him a jerk, and another in sworn testimony stated that “he doesn’t need to be in control of women, like, at all. He doesn’t need to be a boss of anybody. He’s just not fit in any way, shape or form.”
Former Human Resources Director Russell Bearden, in an affidavit dated September 26th, 2017, detailed a meeting with Jones about a sexual harassment complaint filed against him by a woman who worked in the office for five days in March of 2015. Bearden states that he received the complaint and went to the office of County Mayor Terry Frank and advised her of the situation.
Frank told him that he should speak with Jones, who submitted a written response to the allegations on May 11th, 2015, and met with Bearden at Bearden’s office that same day.
Bearden says that he spoke with Jones about the seriousness of the complaint and advised him that he needed to be more careful about what he says to female employees and other concerns. However, Bearden’s affidavit says that “Jones looked at me and laughed. He made the statement, ‘The beauty of this is that I don’t report to anyone, I don’t have a boss. I could sit buck naked with the door open and masturbate and there’s nothing you can do about it.'” Bearden said that Jones added that he was covered by liability insurance for matters like this, which Bearden later confirmed was not the case.
Bearden said he tried to address Jones about how “wrong that statement was” but that Jones simply, laughed, got up and left his office.
Bearden went back to the mayor, because as he said in his statement, “[it] was early in my [county] employment, and I mistakenly thought the Mayor was the CEO of the county and would not stand for such behavior.” He says that Frank told him that since Jones was an independently-elected official, she could not force him to do anything, including workplace behavior training. The mayor suggested Bearden schedule sexual harassment training for Jones, which he agreed to and Bearden scheduled. The day before the training session, though, Bearden states that Jones came to his office and informed him he would not be attending the training, that what training he had already had was sufficient.
Bearden said in that affidavit that despite “rumors around the Courthouse…I could not take action since no one with firsthand knowledge approached me in August of 2017.”
After that complaint was made in August, the wheels began to move more quickly, and four women gave sworn depositions under oath on September 14th of last year, and Law Director Jay Yeager sent Jones a memo on September 19th informing him that “Anderson County has received a sexual harassment complaint against you. This matter will be investigated thoroughly and the results forwarded to the proper office for additional consultation and direction. During the meantime, steps will be taken to insure that no additional liability can be attributed to the county,” including placing the woman described as the “original complainant” on administrative leave until a new position opened up for her.
After being notified of the allegations by the HR Department, Commission Chair Isbel wrote a letter to Jones informing him of the allegations and asking him to “please discontinue unprofessional behavior at once and do not contact or retaliate against any of the alleged accusers and employees.”
Jeffers-Whitaker stated during this week’s Commission meeting that she had personally delivered the redacted files concerning the allegations to Jones last week, taking exception to his contention in his email that he had “only just learned” of the accusations.
Russell Bearden resigned in October of last year to return to the private sector, which he says he is better suited for, which led one of the accusers to submit a document in which she worried that the matter was going to be “swept under the rug” once he left his post. Jeffers-Whitaker was appointed his replacement a short time later and kept the investigation going, delivering her findings during an emotional presentation Tuesday night.
We will continue to follow this story for you.
On a related note, Rocky Top Mayor Mike Lovely, who had qualified to run for Circuit Court Clerk in the May primary, has withdrawn his name from the race, as has Samantha Ashley, leaving only Jones and former County Mayor Rex Lynch on the ballot. Lynch himself was forced to resign after pleading guilty to sales tax fraud in 2011.